by B. N. Sullivan
You would think that after doing thousands of dives at hundreds of dive sites around the world, we would not remember encounters with individual fish. Who knows how many different fish we have seen in our long years of diving? Yet there are a few individuals among the masses that do stand out in our memory. One of those was a big silvery fish that hung out near our home reef at Puako, Hawaii for the better part of a year.
That big silvery fish was a Great Barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda), just like the one in the photo at right. I photographed that one in the Caribbean, but we have seen this species all over the world, and have had many close encounters with them. Most of our encounters with barracuda were unremarkable, until we crossed paths with the one we came to call Brutus.
Brutus the Great Barracuda was 'great' in more ways than one. He was great in size: we figured he was about five feet long and probably weighed around 70 pounds. He also was a great companion: if he spotted us from a distance he'd hurry to us, and then follow us around for most of our dive.
Seeing a big barracuda like Brutus underwater can make the hair on the back of a diver's neck stand up and prickle, but Brutus never harmed us, nor did he ever give any sign that he wanted to do anything more than watch what we were doing. In fact, he could be downright nosy.
Usually Brutus followed us at a respectful distance of, say, 20 to 30 feet. But there were times when we'd stop to look closely at some tiny little creature, and that distance would close until we'd have Brutus looking right over our shoulders. I don't know why he did that. Maybe he thought we might have found something good to eat, and he didn't want to miss it. What I do know is that sometimes we'd turn our heads, and there would be this big barracuda face with the gnarly-toothed grin right there!
When Brutus first started to follow us around, we thought maybe we were imagining it. We thought maybe the big fish just happened to be going where we were going, and was not really following us at all. So, along with our friend Dan, we cooked up an experiment: We agreed ahead of time that if we saw Brutus and he started to follow us, we would reverse direction, swim past him, and see if he then turned around and stayed behind us. He did. After a few more rounds of this we concluded that he really was following us intentionally, and not by chance.
Then we noticed that Brutus seemed to prefer Jerry to Dan and me. When the three of us were diving together, it was our habit to swim more or less parallel to one another, but about 15 or 20 feet apart. We noticed that when we fanned out like that, Brutus would watch all of us, but seemed to follow Jerry more closely. So, we planned another experiment. On one dive, Jerry would be positioned in the middle, with Dan and me at either side. On another dive Jerry would take an end position, and either Dan or I would take the middle spot. Sure enough, regardless of which position in the line-up Jerry took, Brutus would be right behind him.
What was it about Jerry that attracted this big barracuda? The probable answer came one day when I stopped to look at something, while Jerry and Dan swam ahead. When I looked up to see where they were, I spotted Jerry right away. He was wearing a wetsuit that had bright yellow sleeves, and had on yellow fins, too. The yellow was very visible, even from a distance. I couldn't see Dan until I got closer. Dan's suit was all black, just like mine. It was one of those 'lightbulb' moments. "Aha!" I thought. "That's it!" It probably was the yellow in Jerry's dive attire that attracted Brutus.
Barracuda are believed to be attracted to shiny things, probably because much of their diet consists of little silvery fishies. It occurred to me that, while Jerry's fins and wetsuit were not shiny, the yellow color definitely stood out in contrast to the background. You know what's coming, I'll bet. One more experiment.
The next time we went diving, Jerry and Dan swapped suits. Jerry wore all black, and Dan now wore the suit with the bright yellow sleeves. Along came Brutus. We fanned out across the reef, with Dan in the middle, dressed in Jerry's suit. Just as we had hypothesized, Brutus now followed behind Dan. When they switched positions, Brutus still followed Dan. We concluded that it was indeed the yellow in the suit that had attracted the barracuda. After that, we referred to that suit as Barracuda Bait!
So, if you're diving in waters where there are Great Barracuda about, and you don't want to attract their attention, do not wear a high-contrast outfit underwater. Wear a suit that blends, not one that stands out. Don't be barracuda bait.